When I first meet Sable's titular protagonist, she is sitting on the floor of a temple, looking at a giant face set into a wall opposite her. Eventually, she gets up and leaves, as if she regularly hangs out with giant faces carved in stone. I'm left with the feeling that maybe she does.
That's because even at this junction, in a still closed-off portion of the desert surrounding a nomad camp, there are plenty of interesting nooks and crannies to be explored and similarly interestings things to find: dilapidated temples overlooking cliffs, a dam, and strange, abandoned machines. From everything I've seen so far, including the recent E3 footage, there's plenty more temple face where that came from.
Above all, playing Sable feels exactly like I imagined it would based on the footage Shedworks founders Daniel Fineberg and Gregorios Kythreotis have shown off on Twitter throughout development. As Kythreotis tells it, sharing stuff on social media can mean feeling the pressure to deliver, but Shedworks were sure to manage expectations with what they ended up making public: "We were very conscious about trying not to show stuff that might not end up in the final game," he says. Kythreotis also believes the positive reactions to the footage likely led to Sable finding a publisher and support by Xbox.
Sable tells the story of a young woman going on a Gliding, a sort of pilgrimage through the desert. In the demo, you're just getting ready to go, gathering the tools for your journey, such as a navigator to set markers for Sable to follow with, or a mysterious stone that gives her the ability to float. It's a clever way of familiarising you with Sable's controls and its world, without hitting you over the head with a tutorial. As Sable says her goodbyes to her tribe, I'm struck by the warmth of each conversation, and it makes me ask Kythreotis what kind of person Sable is at the beginning of her journey.
"She’s a very open person, a girl finding out who and what is out in the world, but she’s a bit impatient about seeing what is out there and getting away from the Ibexii [tribe]," he tells me. "She’s also someone with uncertainty, torn between the restraints of the traditions of her people and her desire to find her own way in the world."
Her impatience absolutely comes through in the way Sable scrambles to get her own glider, arguably the most important part of the whole exercise. The vehicle is at the heart of the gliding tradition and the stories the nomads tell about it.
This isn't just a hoverbike on sand, a cool way to get around, but Sable's companion, something she has been taught to cherish—kind of how we usually talk about a loyal horse. You run your first few errands on a terribly old glider, a slow thing belching unhealthy-looking amounts of smoke, which really helps increase the excitement for the real thing. Riding around on it already looks and feels amazing though, your bike weightlessly zooming over dunes. It's not only the gliding that feels good, either—Sable turns out to be a very nimble climber. You can scramble up almost any surface, stamina permitting. Since basically all you do is travel, Shedworks spent a lot of time perfecting movement, with stamina more of a gentle guide to finding an effective way around, rather than an arbitrary annoyance.
This is a game about a location and your character's place in it—so where does the idea for Sable's biggest star, the desert, come from? "The very first thought about making a game like Sable came when watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Kythreotis explains. “The first five minutes or so when Rey is on Jakku, and thinking ‘What if she never left? What if she was stuck there?’. It just kind of developed from there really. We messed around with a little two hour prototype, a giant 500m cube in a 2km x 2km block of sand and a hovercar asset from the asset store and just the feeling of driving out to that giant cube was extremely compelling. Seeing something mysterious in the distance, and travelling to it."
Once you know, the inspiration is clear to see, but it's one of many—especially visually, a lot more influenced Shedworks than the often quoted work of French artist Jean Giraud, alias Moebius. There's Tintin and Studio Ghibli, and Akira, alongside architecture from many other anime such as Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor.
Unlike many games that violently thrust you into adventure, often against your will, Sable isn't designed to make you a hero. You may be stuck on a desert planet while Rey got to go out there and save the galaxy, but for Sable this is the big unknown. She simply wants to see what's out there—leading to an altogether more relaxing atmosphere. Shedworks didn't design a non-violent game just for that reason, although it is part of it, as Kythreotis tells it. "We definitely want the player to feel like they were being invited to explore the world, rather than hesitating and thinking 'could that kill me?,’" he says. "Also, we are a small team making a game that is quite big. Introducing new mechanics and elements and getting them right is very difficult so we try to keep the design as focussed as we can. We do try to explore unease, hesitation and the unknown in different ways. I think you’ll see that when Sable leaves her clan, but maybe not in the same way you would get in a survival game, for example."
In just a very short demo, Sable managed to make me feel invested in its heroine and the world that awaits. As the demo ends with the conclusion of Sable's preparations and a snippet of its theme song by Japanese Breakfast, I'm already imagining the journey ahead. Sable is out September 23 on Steam, and as part of Steam Next Fest, you can play the demo yourself.